Pastoral Search Committees / PNC’s / Pulpit nominating committees usually say their first goal is a pastor who preaches well. Yet, few evaluate sermons against any objective criteria.
Below is an excerpt of material I wrote that gives suggestions for how search committees should evaluate sermons.
If you would like more information, you can e-mail me at chris at theredbrickchurch.org.
Section 6: Judge Lest ye be Judged
He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9, NIV, emphasis added).
In Matthew 7:1 Jesus says, “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” That verse in mind, it may come as a surprise to you that I have given this section the title, “Judge, lest ye be judged.” After all, Matthew 7:1 may have surpassed John 3:16 as the most well known verse in the Bible. Even people who are not Christians quote this verse.
To be sure, Jesus taught that there is a kind of wrong judging. If we make evaluations about people without first bringing ourselves under the same standard, then this is a serious offense (Matthew 7:1-5). In implementing Jesus’ exhortation, however, we need to be careful that we do not throw biblical discernment out with the bathwater of hypocrisy. Make no mistake. In order, to call a pastor you will have to discerningly judge or evaluate the candidate. So, my encouragement to you in this section is, “Do judge, lest ye be accountable to God for not wisely and discerningly leading your church forward.”
. . . But, if you are going to evaluate sermons you will need more than this. Most of the time when you evaluate a potential pastor you will only have the fifth box: “shine light on the pews.” Unless you have a lot of time, and a very understanding candidate, you will not be able to go into his study and home and follow the entire process of sermon preparation. You will be able to ask some questions about preparation. But you will not do that until you have focused in on a small number of candidates. For that reason, it is important that you be able to take only the final product and consider whether or not it is a meal of God’s Word. In this section, I want to help you consider a particular sermon and evaluate whether or not it is expository.
This section is also very important because it will help your search committee agree on the grid that you follow in evaluating sermons. What I have discovered in my research is that in the absence of a framework for evaluating sermons, search committees gravitate to subjective hunches, personal preferences and how well the candidate interviews rather than whether or not a candidate will preach expository sermons. Avoid search committee dialogues like the following.
Chairman, Joe: Well we all listened to this guy’s sermon. What did everyone think?
Sally: I really, really loved it. I just felt the Holy Spirit impress on my heart that this is the one.
Cindy: I didn’t get to listen to the whole thing, and the kids were kind of noisy in the car. But, I really liked what I heard.
Steve: You know; it was okay. But, I had some questions. I mean I can’t put my finger on it, but I was uncomfortable.
Chairman Joe: Marsha, you are always the quiet one. You haven’t said anything. What do you think?
Marsha: Well you know I’m on here because of my leadership in children’s ministries. I’m not sure that I am really qualified to comment on a sermon.
You see where this kind of discussion leaves you. There are different opinions and no agreed upon criteria. Much of the dialogue is subjective: a matter of how people feel. You and I have been in enough meetings to know that this discussion will slide in the direction of the stronger personalities. Steve may ultimately defer to the opinions of the others. But, what if he was onto something with his concerns? Do we really want Marsha to remain silent? Some of the most gifted, faithful, biblical people in our churches work in children’s ministries. Effective children’s teachers are gifted in preaching truth in simple captivating ways. Marsha may be the best evaluator in the room!
All this is why it is important that you have an instrument for evaluating sermons that will allow you to focus on what it is important and get beyond personal preferences. The grid that I would suggest is found at the end of this section on page 168. It would be a good idea to turn ahead and read through it once. Below I explain why I believe that this is a good instrument for evaluating a sermon.
Did the Sermon Feature a Clear Central Thought? Preach a Bullet.
Let me begin with a question that should be asked of every sermon. Was there a clear central thought or focus for the sermon? The importance of a clearly stated central thought or focus may not be immediately apparent. The first thing that I want to do is convince you that every sermon should be focused around a clearly stated central idea.
When a sermon is not focused around a central thought, it is impossible to follow. Imagine listening to a sermon that went something like this:
God is a wonderful God. He has created the entire world. The mountains are so beautiful. When one looks at the mountains, he or she can feel God’s presence. God’s presence helps us through tough times. When I flew over Switzerland, I looked down and saw the Alps. The Alps were awesome. The trees were beautiful. Swiss people are great. God created all the people in the world. Hard times come to us all. I remember when my grandmother died. God is good. 
If you do not have a headache after reading that paragraph, you should. The problem is not that any one sentence is wrong or untrue. It is just that it is “scattered.” The paragraph lacks focus. It is all over the place.
Saying that a sermon should have a clear central thought does not mean that a sermon can only have one point. It does mean that a sermon should be organized around one central concept. Haddon Robinson calls this the “big idea” of sermons. Sometimes it is called the “preaching point.” Using Haddon Robinson’s words, a sermon should, “Fire a bullet, not buckshot.”
When I first started studying preaching, I agreed with this point, but did not feel that strongly about it. However, the longer I preach, the more important I know that it is. And, if you will not take my word for it, virtually every book on preaching says that a good sermon should have a clearly stated central thought or proposition. Take a few moments to read some of these other quotes. They testify to the vast consensus that every sermon should be developed around a clearly stated central thought.
Rhetoricians emphasize the necessity of a clearly stated central thought so strongly that virtually every textbook devotes some space to a treatment of the principle. Terminology may vary – – central idea, proposition, theme, thesis statement, main thought – – but the concept is the same . . . A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot. Ideally each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominant idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.
. . . a speech to be maximally effective, ought to attempt to develop more or less fully only one major proposition. . . Any unit that does not contribute to the whole should be eliminated, regardless of how interesting it may be in itself.
I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness – – this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.
. . . make sure that every expository message has a single theme that is crystal clear so that your people know exactly what you are saying, how you have supported it, and how it is applied to their lives. The thing that kills people in what is sometimes called expository preaching is randomly meandering through a passage.
. . . I am convinced that preaching with a single proposition is the best way to learn to preach . . . A single bullet is much more powerful than a small piece of shot or even the collective effect of many shots. A disjointed comment on words or phrases will be of little value in changing lives since propositions of God’s Truth, not minutiae, move people to think and act differently.
Whatever word we use, the theme or idea of the sermon ought to state as clearly and succinctly as possible the point the sermon seeks to make.
Samuel T. Logan:
But a sermon, to be great, to be effective, whether it is long or short, must be focused. . . The aim must be precise and good preachers recognize this, often instinctively.
State each idea in such a way that it directly develops the overall purpose of the sermon or immediately supports a point that does.
Chappell’s “3 A.M. test” is especially vivid.
The 3 A.M. test require you to imagine [someone] awaking you from your deepest slumber with this simple question, ‘What’s the sermon about today Pastor?’ If you cannot give a crisp answer, you know the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3 A.M. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:AM.
In order to evaluate a sermon for the central thought, you need to listen to the sermon as a whole. It is possible for a sermon to have one or two powerful anecdotes that capture your imagination, hold your attention, or make you smile or cry. But, do these points fit with the overall thrust of the sermon? Do they fit with the preaching point that flows out of the Bible? A preacher who makes his own points will soon wear thin. He will lack the freshness of the Spirit and the authority of the Word.
Was the Sermon True to the Bible? A Sermon Should Preach a Biblical Bullet.
The second criterion is just as important as the first. When evaluating a sermon, we should ask, “Is it true to the Bible?” If the sermon is going to be “expository” it is not enough to simply have a clearly stated central thought. In order to be expository, the central thought must flow out of the Bible. Most often, this will be from one Bible passage. As you listen to the sermon, and identify the central thought and points of the sermon, ask, “Is this the point of the text? Does the central thought flow out of what the Bible says?
Evaluating sermons may require that you study a particular text yourselves. Preachers often read their meanings into passages rather than allowing the text to speak. Ask yourself at this point, “Did the pastor find the timeless truth of this passage and apply it to our situation today?” A Bible passage does not have many different meanings. It should have one meaning with many applications. Did the preacher speak out of the truth of the Word? This is where you get to be like the Bereans. Remember them? They examined the Word to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11).
It should be pointed out that, if a sermon is true to the text, then it will ultimately be Christ centered. Our faith is not essentially about the words of a book or certainly not about a set of propositions. We are all about a person: the Lord Jesus Christ. He and His redemptive work are the subject of Scripture. True biblical preaching will keep us centered on Him.
You can remember the first two criteria together with the phrase, “A sermon should preach a biblical bullet.” It should be a bullet in that it is organized around a clearly stated central thought. A sermon should be biblical in that it flows out of the authority of Scripture.
Was the Sermon True to the Life of the Listener? A Sermon Should Preach a Biblical Bullet Aimed at the Life of the Listener.
Not only should a sermon be true to the text, it should also be “true to the audience.” Remember what Paul told Titus, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).” Paul does not tell Titus simply to preach “sound doctrine.” He says, preach that which “fits” or “is appropriate” or “accords” with sound doctrine. The Greek word here means, “to be fitting, be seemly or suitable.” Paul is telling Titus to show how sound doctrine fits with life. Just as culture and fashion teach us what to wear to a formal function, preachers should show their people the kind of behavior that should adorn their lives. It is through expository preaching that the Word of God is heard and that, “. . . life is thought about and given its most searching and serious analysis.” Haddon Robinson states, “The purpose behind each individual sermon is to secure some moral action.” Joe Stowell adds, “But if ultimately the outcome does not result in a changed life because of an encounter with truth, then it has not been what God intended preaching to be.” Duane Litfin writes, “The purpose of Scripture is not merely to satisfy our curiosity or to provide us with a glimpse of something that happened long ago. It is designed to transform lives today, and the expositor acknowledges this by always helping the audience to come to grips with the relevance of the passage for them.”
A similar point can be made from 2 Timothy. As has already been pointed out, Paul reminds Timothy in this section that all Scripture is “God-breathed.” He goes on to tell Timothy to preach the Word. In the midst of this section he says that Scripture is “useful” or “profitable.” The Bible is not boring because it is useful for something. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16b that the “profit” from Scripture is for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
When you listen to a sermon, it is not enough for the sermon to contain truth. Ask yourself if the truth is being applied to the life of the listener. Listen throughout the sermon for points that are stated in terms of actions and exhortations. Watch for clues that the preacher is in tune with the life of the listeners. Also notice whether the preacher seems to have been impacted personally. Preaching that is true to the audience should begin with the preacher. The Word should first impact his life.
Summing up the criteria so far, “a sermon should be a biblical bullet preached at the life of the listener.”
Was the Sermon Clear and Easy to Follow? Sermons Should be a Biblical Bullet Preached at the Life of the Listener in the Clear Light of Day.
Preaching a sermon is like leading a group on a journey. The preacher must look often in is his rear-view mirror to make sure that listeners are not losing their way in a fog of words. Listeners should follow the preacher from point to point. Sermons that shake the audience off their tail at every turn are unclear.
As a committee you should not pardon a lack of clarity because it seems really “deep.” Haddon Robinson notes, “Sometimes what we call deep is simply muddy.” Spurgeon makes the guilty cringe when he charges:
An average hearer, who is unable to follow the course of thought of the preacher, ought not to worry himself, but to blame the preacher, whose business it is to make the matter plain. If you look down into a well, if it be empty it will appear to be very deep, but if there be water in it you will see its brightness. I believe that many “deep” preachers are simply so because they are like dry wells with nothing whatever in them, except decaying leaves, a few stones, and perhaps a dead cat or two. If there be living water in your preaching it may be very deep, but the light of truth will give clearness to it. It is not enough to be so plain that you can be understood, you must speak so that you cannot be misunderstood.
When you evaluate a sermon ask, “Is it clear? Can I follow the progression? Do I know how he moved from one point to the next? Does it fit together?” A clear sermon is marked by several characteristics. These include:
- Understandable language. It is one thing for a preacher to introduce important theological terms like “justification” or even “propitiation.” But, his clarity will be harmed if he insists on heady vocabulary.
- A clear preacher uses restatement often. Restatement is saying the same thing in different words. When evaluating a sermon, listen to see if the preacher is taking the time to restate major points.
- Clarity is also helped with illustrations. Do the illustrations help teach the point of the text? Or, are they just entertaining stories? Are there illustrations present?
- Transitions to new points must be clearly signaled. Clarity often disappears when preachers move from one point to the next.
The life and death importance of preaching demands that sermons be clear. “When people leave a church in a mental fog, they do so at their spiritual peril.” Ask yourself, “Was this sermon clear?”
Summarizing the criteria thus far, a sermon should be a biblical bullet preached at the life of the listener in the clear light of day.
Was the Sermon Interesting?
Good preaching should be also interesting. There is no doubt that some preaching is terribly boring. That is not okay! Spurgeon was ruthless in writing about boring preaching. Here is how he described boring sermons.
“No [anesthetic] can ever equal some discourses in sleep-giving properties; no human being, unless gifted with infinite patience, could long endure to listen to them, and nature does well to give the victim deliverance through sleep.” 
As for the preachers, he says:
“If some men were sentenced to hear their own sermons it would be a righteous judgment upon them, and they would soon cry out with Cain, ‘My punishment is far greater than I can bear.'” 
We could debate if boring preachers deserve such a punishment. But, as a search committee you do not want to call a preacher who will put you to sleep for years to come. As you evaluate sermons, you should also consider whether or not the preacher holds your interest. How well does the sermon hold your attention? Does the preacher seem to sense when he is losing people and make adjustments? Do illustrations seem canned and tired? Or, do the illustrations draw you in? Is the sermon too predictable? Or, do you find yourself wondering how it will end?
Did the Sermon Have Effective and Appropriate Gestures, Non-Verbal Communication, and Overall Presentation?
For the final category on the evaluation sheet, I ask the question, “How were the gestures, non-verbal communication, and overall presentation? Did the preacher’s gestures and movements seem natural? Did his body language reinforce the message and seem appropriate? Was he distracting in how he moved? Did he draw attention to his movements rather than to using his non-verbal communication to reinforce the sermon?
Putting it all together – The evaluation form that follows summarizes this section. I have already discussed each of the categories where the sermon should be evaluated. Notice at the end, they I suggest a “weighted” system for scoring the sermon. I admit right up front that I have a background in science. You may say, “Well, this is way too complicated.” Honest, it isn’t that bad. The weighted scoring system is just a way of showing that some parts of the sermon evaluation are more important than others. The scoring system I suggest puts the most emphasis on a clear central though and being biblical.
I would suggest that each of you fill this form out and submit a copy to your search team before discussing a particular sermon. This will protect you from less vocal participants being hesitant to share insights that may be very valuable.
Here are a few other suggestions for evaluating sermons.
- There is value in both selecting sermon tapes to listen to randomly and letting the candidate pick them. For example, you might say to the candidate, “Please send us the last four sermons you preached.” At the same time, you might also say, “Send us a couple sermons of your own choosing.” It is nice to know what he thinks is one of his better efforts.
- Try and listen to sermons at a time when you can give them your undivided attention. This may not be possible for all sermons, but do so whenever possible, and especially as you zero in on a few candidates.
Let me go back to my exhortation at the beginning of this section that you “judge lest ye be judged.” In researching this project, I found that people on pastoral search committees may be reluctant to give a preacher less than perfect scores. While preachers, myself included, appreciate people who are gracious in their evaluation, it is necessary in making a choice to be discriminating. When you evaluate a sermon, I would encourage you to keep the following in mind.
- Do maintain an attitude of humility and grace. Preaching is so challenging. Approach your evaluation as though you were going to present it to the preacher being evaluated and his family.
- At the same time, only Jesus preached perfect sermons. You will not hear a perfect sermon. Do not feel as though you are being mean or wrongly judgmental if you note how a sermon might be improved.
- Leave yourself room for better sermons in the future. This is a principle you can learn from Olympic judges. The judges will make sure when they evaluate an early candidate that they do not put the scores up against a ceiling. Likewise, you need to make sure that if you hear a stronger sermon that you leave yourself room to distinguish between the two sermons.
- What sentence was given to describe an effective sermon?
- Explain biblically why expository sermons should be relevant to the audience.
- Explain biblically why good preaching should not be boring.
- Do you agree with the weighting system given? Does it make sense to you?
- Practice sermon evaluation by evaluating one sermon as a committee. Submit a copy of your evaluations, then discuss the sermon together.
Sermon Evaluation Form
|Date Preached:||Date Listened to:|
|Start Time:||End Time:|
Score each of the areas from 1-5, 5 being the best possible, and add comments.
Was there a clear central thought or focus for the sermon?
1 2 3 4 5
What was the central thought?
Was the sermon true to the Bible?
1 2 3 4 5
Was the sermon true to the audience where the sermon was preached? (Don’t evaluate him as if he were preaching this audience to your church).
1 2 3 4 5
Was the sermon clear and easy to follow?
1 2 3 4 5
Was the sermon interesting?
1 2 3 4 5
1 2 3 4 5
Do you have any other thoughts or comments?
What or two or three things that were done well in the sermon that should be repeated in future sermons?
What are two or three things that could be improved?
Calculating a Final Score
Total (Column 2xColumn 3)
|Was there a clear central thought or focus for the sermon?||
|Was the sermon true to the Bible?||
|Was the sermon true to the audience?||
|Was the sermon clear and easy to follow?||
|Was the sermon interesting?||
|How were the gestures, non-verbal communication, and overall presentation?||
*The third column should be column two multiplied by column 3. Using the weight multipliers suggested above, the highest score possible would be 65.
 Credit to Tom Anderst and Marvin Harris for this example. They used it as an example of an unfocused paragraph. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 35. Ibid., 35-36, 35. Litfin, 80, 153. Jowett, quoted in Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 37. MacArthur, “Frequently Asked Questions About Expository Preaching,” 347.
 Willhite, 13, 22.
 Greidanus, 137.
 Logan, 129.
 Chapell, 133.
 Ibid., 39.
 Wells, God in the Wasteland : The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, 84. Wells says, “The church should be known as a place where God is worshiped, where the Word of God is heard and practiced, and where life is thought about and given its most searching and serious analysis.”
 Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 107.
 Stowell, 125. Fabarez., does a great job emphasizing how expository preaching should change the lives of the listeners.
 Litfin, 340.
 Robinson and Gibson, Making a Difference in Preaching: Haddon Robinson on Biblical Preaching, 26.
 Spurgeon, 210.
 Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 46.
 Spurgeon, 209.
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